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Musical Musings: Miscellaneous

Saintly Music

by Gary D. Penkala

Men and women of all ages have found music to be a great servant of the Church, a noble art able to inspire and teach the faithful. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the work of the great hymn writers. In this article you will find some of these hymn writers who have been canonized over the centuries. Some wrote music and text; others, text only. All deserve the title "Musician Saint" for there is some of the musician in every poet.

Saint Ephrem (306-373) was a Syrian deacon, theologian and doctor of the Church. His feast day is June 9. His hymns, still widely used in Syrian churches, were designed for popular use and were didactic in character, often directed against various false doctrines of the times. He was one of the first to introduce song into the Church's liturgy as a means of instruction. It is said, "His hymns lent a luster to the Christian assemblies," and he was called the "Harp of the Holy Spirit." His hymns include Receive, O Lord, in Heaven Above and Virgin Wholly Marvelous.

One of the four great Latin doctors of the Church, Saint Ambrose (340-397) was chosen as bishop of Milan even before he was formally baptized. He was the first Western teacher to make extensive use of hymns as a popular means of divine praise and fostering right belief. Some of his hymns are Æterna Christi munera (The Eternal Gifts of Christ), Splendor Paternæ (O Splendor of the Father), Nunc Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Ghost) and Veni Redemptor gentium (Savior of the Nations, Come).

June 22 is the feast day of Saint Paulinus (353-431), bishop of Nola, a poet and hymn writer. His works include the hymn Another Year Completed and an early wedding song.

Saint Romanus the Melodist, a 6th century Syrian, has been called the greatest and most original of the Byzantine hymn writers. Of his thousand hymns, only eighty have survived and they are vivid and dramatic. He gave classical form to the type of hymn called kontakion, of which his first was traditionally the one for Christmas, On This Day the Maiden Gave Birth to the Transcendent One.

Saint Germanus of Constantinople (634-733) was bishop of Cyzicus and his hymns include A Great and Mighty Wonder.

The archbishop of Gortyna, Saint Andrew of Crete (660-740), is best known for his liturgical poetry. He wrote many short hymns, each with its own melody, called idiomela, and is said to be the first writer of the form called the kanon. His Great Kanon, a penitential Lenten hymn of 250 stanzas, is still sung in the Byzantine liturgy. He also wrote Christians, Dost Thou See Them.

Saint Bede the Venerable (673-735) was an English monk and hymn writer whose feast falls on May 25. His works include The Hymn for Conquering Martyrs Raise and Sing We Triumphant Hymns of Praise.

December 4 celebrates Saint John of Damascus (675-749), priest, monk, theologian, and since 1890, doctor of the Church. His hymns are still used in the Greek liturgy and several are found in modern hymnals: Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain, The Day of Resurrection, Come and Let Us Drink of That New River, Thou Hallowed Chosen Morn of Praise and Those Eternal Bowers.

In addition to writing hymns, Saint Theodore the Studite (759-826) was an abbot of a Studite monastery in Constantinople and a skilled calligrapher, an art which he fostered among his monks. The Western counterpart to Saint Theodore was Saint Nilus of Roscano (910-1004), an Italian abbot, hymn writer and calligrapher.

Saint Peter Damian (1007-1170) was an English hermit and hymn writer. He also wrote music for his hymns, making him the composer of the earliest known musical settings of English words. He is described as being wholly ignorant of music, and his own explanation was that both words and melodies were taught him in a vision by the Virgin Mary and his dead sister.

August 20 is the feast of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), abbot, theologian and doctor of the Church. His hymns include Jesu dulcis memoria and The World Is Evil.

One of the most popular saints, Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), was a poet and a hymn writer. His feast day is October 4. Some of his hymns include The Canticle of the Sun, The Peace Prayer and Most High Omnipotent Good Lord.

Saint Richard of Chichester (1197-1253) was an English bishop and hymn writer, author of the text Day by Day. Saint Simon Stock, the 13th century monk to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared, beginning the scapular devotion, is also the author of several well-known Latin Marian hymns.

Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), a brilliant theologian, is consdiered by many to be the greatest doctor of the Church, earning him the title "Angelic Doctor." His feast day is January 28. He was a poet as well as a theologian and was commissioned to write the Divine Office for the new feast of Corpus Christi. His Eucharistic hymns are well known: Adoro te devote, Verbum supernum, Pange lingua, O salutaris Hostia, Tantum ergo and Lauda Sion.

Information taken from The Avenel Dictionary of the Saints by Donald Attwater (Avenel Books, New York).

See CNP's articles on Hymns & Hymnody

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